GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was almost too easy. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ high-scoring, pass-first, multi-threat offense were nearly unstoppable throughout most of last season.
Rodgers seemed capable of executing Green Bay’s scheme while methodically spreading his passes around to whichever receiver he wanted. At times, the ease with which he did so made it appear as if Rodgers could make any throw at any time and have it result in a positive play.
Setting an NFL record for the best passer rating in a single season validated just how on-point Rodgers was with the Packers’ talented and deep group of wide receivers. With 45 touchdown passes and six interceptions resulting in the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, Rodgers led Green Bay’s offense to near the top of the league in almost every passing category.
The chances of Rodgers and the Packers being able to duplicate — or improve upon — last season are slim. But, despite having their worst game of the year in the most meaningful game of the year and bowing out of the playoffs early, a 15-1 regular-season record did not happen by accident.
Rodgers, who sat out Week 17 to rest for the postseason, helped Green Bay lead the NFL in scoring, finish first in passing touchdowns, second in completion percentage, third in total yards, first in plays of 40-plus yards, second in plays of 20-plus yards and third in third-down conversion percentage.
With seemingly nowhere for the Packers to go but down, veteran receiver Donald Driver won’t accept that as a potential outcome.
“Be No. 1 in all categories,” Driver said this week of the goal for the Packers’ passing offense this season. “I think we were No. 2 and No. 3 throughout the National Football League, but being No. 1 is on top. So that’s where we want to be.”
Though Driver’s role in Green Bay’s up-tempo offense has decreased significantly over the past two seasons, there are several other options in addition to the franchise’s all-time leading receiver.
Greg Jennings has made two consecutive Pro Bowls and has been Rodgers’ most consistent target since 2008, when Brett Favre was traded and the team was handed over to a then-unproven former first-round pick out of California.
Jordy Nelson had a breakout season in 2011, leading the Packers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. There is also young, speedy Randall Cobb, a rookie last season who adds a different dimension to the offense and should figure more prominently into the passing game in 2012.
Plus, tight end Jermichael Finley, if he can overcome the drop issues that plagued him last season, has the overall ability to be mentioned right alongside Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham as one of the elite players at the position. James Jones is sometimes the forgotten receiver in the group, but he would be a No. 2 receiver on many NFL teams.
Rodgers clearly has choices when he drops back to pass. However, even the MVP knows that repeating their 2011 performance would be quite a challenge for the Packers.
“It’s tough to do,” Rodgers said. “It’s tough to do because teams have a lot of film on us and we have a tough schedule. But I think it’s all about consistency for us, just finding ways to do better, especially in the situational categories.
“If you look at the red-zone stats, third-down stats, there’s definitely room for improvement there. But for us it’s just going to be about playing the right way, starting the season out and finishing the season out.”
Nelson, viewing things from a very specific perspective, doesn’t believe improving on last season will be difficult.
“It doesn’t take much to look at: If you have one drop, well, you can be better there,” Nelson said. “If you don’t get open on a route, you can be better there. So it’s easy to get better, but it’s hard to be perfect, and that’s what we all strive for.”
Though Nelson pointed out drops, that was not much of a problem for Packers receivers last season.
Data from ProFootballFocus.com had Jennings with four drops, but there were 33 receivers in the league with more. Jennings was 10th in the NFL in drop rate, hanging on to nearly 95 percent of catchable passes thrown his way. Nelson was even better. He had only two drops and had the fourth-best drop rate in the league. Finley, on the other hand, led all tight ends with 12 drops.
“We had drops in critical moments, and that hurt us,” Nelson said of the problem that became even more acute in the playoff loss. “That’s an easy thing to eliminate. We strive for perfection. If we’re perfect in everything then we’ll be the top of all the charts.”
If Rodgers and the offense can actually be better this upcoming season, it will be difficult to keep the Lombardi Trophy out of Green Bay for a second consecutive year.